When I was 11 my parents split up, I lost my teddy bear and I was exiled. It was like falling off a cliff with no one to catch me at the bottom
My childhood as I had known it changed forever when I was sent to a girls boarding school in the seventies. My mothers were in the process of splitting up, and my mother used to go abroad to look after my terminally ill granny neither subject was discussed with me.
A few months before I left for my new life, aged only 11, I lost my teddy bear at an airport. The small bear had been my constant companion, and as my parents told goodbye absolutely nothing to cling to. The first night away, I sobbed in the small, unfamiliar bed. It was like falling off a cliff into the unknown with no one to catch me at the bottom.
The school was a former stately home situated in 25 acres of parkland that also contained a Saxon church and Italian gardens. The Jacobean-like exterior was huge and imposing. When we drove up the grand drive at the beginning of the autumn word, it was the first time I had actually watched the school.
I remember the heavy sense of impending doom as my mothers said goodbye. I would consider them on only two Saturday nights and for one short half term over the next three months. We communicated by letter, which we were obliged to write on a Sunday the gossip being that the housemistress read and censored them all. It was a brutal way to live, supervised by embittered middle-aged women who didnt appear to like children.
We were often cold and always hungry. The food was inedible, mostly. I remember oily pilchards, a disgusting dish of tinned tomatoes and crumble, slivers of hard meat that resembled pieces of leather, scrambled egg made from powder, pink bacon with more fat than meat. It was like being given a punitive sentence that never seemed to end.
Despite the privileged education we were please give, conditions were spartan: there were no draperies on our bedroom windows, we had one small drawer to store our personal items, and we were allotted three tepid baths a week. Every evening we stood in a line and sing vespers, which we had to learn off by heart. We wore enormous grey pants over our underwear, and every morning the matron would make us lift our skirts to check we were wearing them.
I remember interminable boredom. There was nothing to do after lessons or at weekends. At first I missed my mother urgently and wanted her to take me away. I wrote her tragic letters, which must have been hard to read. When I realised that she couldnt save me, I gave up trying to succeed. I had been a happy, productive student at primary school, and had been induced head girl in my final year. I enjoyed cycling, acting, read, writing and climbing trees. My best friend from that time reminds me that I was pretty academic.
My gang of friends and I loathed our boarding school. We tried to rebel against the petty regulations that prevented us being individuals. We began smoking at the age of 14 out of boredom and lost interest in anything but counting down the days until the end of word, when we would be released back into the real world for a short spell of liberty. None of our group achieved what we should have done academically.
We left at 16 and went to other schools for -Alevels, but I railed against authority for years to go, and shirked anything that smacked of commitment or routine. After 5 years of heavy restraint, I wanted to be free to do exactly what I liked. Even the believed to be university felt too restrictive, and I delayed going until my mid-twenties.
I guess the worst facet of that life, apart from being rent from home, was the way we fell out of the habit of confiding in our parents. I was bullied for a year by a housemistress with rolling eyes and a wobbling lip who made it clear that she detested me. Almost every night she ordered me to stand in dark passageways for talking after lights out( everyone chatted in the dormitory, but she singled me out ). She would leave me there for what seemed like hours, and would ultimately return, claiming she had forgotten me. One day she sent me to sleep on my own in a large empty dormitory for several weeks, which is now being frightening. I didnt tell my mothers, but felt intensely persecuted and wretched.
Luckily, times have changed: mothers, for whatever reason, still send their children to boarding school, but those institutions are far more accountable, and children have many ways to stay in touch with their parents. In those days we had access to one telephone box for more than 300 girls.
Living away from my mothers greatly affected me. For many years, I lacked confidence and would too easily feel abandoned. Children need to be taken care of by people who truly love them as merely parents can.
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